Case Overview

Gilliam v. Gerregano - Tennessee Supreme Court amicus

Leah Gilliam is a Tennessee resident who, in December 2010, requested and received the vanity license plate “69PWNDU” from the Tennessee Department of Revenue. The “69” referenced the 1969 moon landing while “PWNDU” is gaming term — rumored to have originated from a chess game in 1935 — meaning “owned” or, in this case, “owned you,” in the context of playing a video game. 

She drove with this license plate until May 2021, when someone texted the Department of Revenue’s Chief of Staff to complain. The Department revoked Gilliam’s license plate under a law prohibiting plates “offensive to good taste and decency.” Gilliam sued, arguing that the statute is overbroad under the First Amendment. After the Davidson County Chancery Court ruled that the First Amendment did not apply because the plates were “government speech,” Gilliam appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

On October 19, 2022, FIRE filed an amicus curiae brief supporting Gilliam in the Tennessee Court of Appeals. After the appellate court ruled in Gilliam’s favor, the state appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. FIRE renewed its support for Gilliam there, submitting an amicus brief to the state’s highest court on March 20, 2024.

FIRE argues that the personalized messages on vanity license plates do not constitute government speech. When a government speaks, it speaks with one voice. Vanity license plates convey messages from vehicle owners, not their governments. If they were treated as “government speech,” the First Amendment wouldn’t apply — it doesn’t stop the government from self-censoring. But governments frequently facilitate speech by the public, so courts should be skeptical of applying the “government speech doctrine” when it is not clear that the government itself is speaking.

FIRE also argued that Tennessee’s statutory language, allowing Department of Revenue officials to choose what constitutes “good taste and decency” gives officials too much discretion to substitute their own opinions about what counts as “good taste” or “decent” speech. In FIRE’s decades of experience, broadly worded statutes like Tennessee’s lead to arbitrary and viewpoint discriminatory enforcement.